Aracelis "Kuky" Upia, a 39-year-old factory worker in the Dominican Republic, is participating in an experiment that, if successful, could help end sweatshops as a staple of the global economy.
A single mother of four, Upia has been sewing in factories since she was 15. For years she earned less than $50 a week. Some employers simply refused to pay her. At one point she was so deeply in debt, the local market stopped extending her credit.
Today, Upia sews T-shirts for $3.02 an hour, a huge leap in income and nearly three times the country's minimum wage. She has paid off her loans and can shop again at the grocery store. She has purchased a refrigerator, plans to add rooms to her home to rent out for additional income, and has paid for her son Nisael's long-postponed dental work. Her son Yacer is studying accounting at the university.pia was among the first workers hired by Alta Gracia, an apparel company named after the town where she has lived all her life and where the factory is based. Alta Gracia's T-shirts and sweatshirts are sold mainly at colleges and universities in the United States at about the same prices as clothing made by Nike, Russell, and other brands.
Beginning in the mid-1990s, students on American campuses used various forms of protest to pressure universities to adopt "codes of conduct" as a condition of allowing companies the rights to use their names, mascots, and logos. These codes looked good on college websites, but universities had no capacity to implement these standards until human-rights activists formed the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC) in 2000, providing colleges with an independent watchdog group that had contacts across the globe and could monitor factory conditions in response to worker complaints. About 180 universities have now affiliated with the WRC by paying annual dues to help fund its investigations. The WRC is independent of companies in their governance and funding.
College-bound goods are just a small fraction of the products made by the thousands of apparel factories around the world, but they form a highly visible niche within the industry, targeted to a customer base who can be persuaded to think about the working conditions and ethical standards surrounding the clothing they purchase. These factors give students considerable leverage in shaping the reputations of major clothing brands, and thus make apparel companies wary of offending them. If students pressure their universities to sever their business relationship with a major clothing label, the bad publicity can have damaging ripple effects in the wider apparel marketplace.
The WRC is an established way that students can do this. The consortium's global network of in-country field representatives monitors factory conditions in response to workers' complaints; the WRC then publishes its reports online. Unlike other organizations that claim to certify and monitor factory conditions overseas, the WRC refuses to accept funding from any company, including Alta Gracia. This avoids the conflict-of-interest that can lead other organizations to favor management (who often pay the certifier fees) over workers.
The WRC views its role as holding companies accountable by shining the light of publicity on them. It operates on the basis that workers are the best source of information about the day-in day-out realities of their workplaces. WRC works closely with a network of human rights groups around the world who get information about working conditions directly from employees. This is preferable to having corporate accounting firms and other business-oriented consultants parachute into countries to examine clothing factories, often after alerting management that they are on their way.
"Fairness is not a marketing label you can buy, slap on a product, and call it good," explained Eliza Kopetchne, a sophomore at Northeastern University and an activist with the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) affiliate on her campus. Kopetchne visited the Alta Gracia factory in January with a delegation led by Fair World Project. "Real fairness is a living, breathing power dynamic – an ongoing effort that is played out every day in the treatment of workers in a workplace. Consumers should support workers' own voices and aspirations for fairness rather than trusting companies to do so. This is why USAS has always stood beside democratic local unions."
Paralleled by pressure from USAS, WRC's investigations have forced many brands to improve conditions at some factories making clothing for the college market. In 2009 and 2010, USAS achieved unprecedented victories with two of the largest companies—Russell and Nike—by pressuring their schools and even retailers to cut contracts with brands. This student-led boycott cost the corporations millions in sales until they came into compliance with the campus' codes of conduct.
This hard-won progress is promising. But it has not been easy. "This is an industry obsessed with pennies," says Scott Nova, WRC's executive director. "We've had tremendous resistance from the big labels."
USAS's victories in their campaigns against Russell and Nike suggested that college students were ready to throw their weight behind a living-wage union-made option in their purchases as well as their actions. If students were prepared to fight against brands that abused workers' rights, wouldn't they rally behind brands that respected them? That's how the idea for the Alta Gracia brand started.
For years, USAS refused to support companies claiming to make "sweatshop free" clothing because they couldn't be sure the companies would keep their commitment. Today, however, USAS, as well as the WRC, have embraced Alta Gracia as a model that proves that socially responsible clothing production is not only possible but profitable.
Alta Gracia is the first apparel company in the college market to work closely with unionized employees and pay them a living wage. It is an unusual collaboration between student, labor, and human rights activists and Knights Apparel, the nation's leading producer of college clothing, which beats Nike and Adidas in the $4 billion collegiate market.
Two key players in the creation of Alta Gracia were Joe Bozich, the CEO of Knights Apparel, and Donnie Hodge, the company president. "We started thinking that we wanted to do something more important with our business than worry just about winning market share," Bozich explained in an interview.
Student activists and labor experts began conversations with Knights executives about whether the economics of clothing production allowed for "the perfect factory," one that could produce well-made items in a safe workplace and pay workers decent wages and benefits. Worker abuse surfaces on factory floors, but it is rooted in the dynamics of the global apparel industry, in which so-called manufacturers—in reality, design and marketing firms such as Nike—outsource the fabrication of clothing to independent contractors worldwide. In this labor-intensive industry where capital requirements are minimal, it is relatively easy to open a clothing factory. This has led to a global race to the bottom: There is always someplace where clothing can be made still more cheaply. Today more than 90 percent of the clothing in U.S. retail stores is imported.
Bozich and Hodge selected a site in the Dominican Republican where a Korean-owned plant had once made clothing for Nike and Reebok. The company, BJ&B, had shut the factory down after its employees unionized. But its workers had forged ties with American activists, and USAS leaders convinced the Knights executives that students would encourage their peers to buy clothing produced there. In February 2010, after a $500,000 renovation based on recommendations from the Maquiladora Health and Safety Support Network, the Alta Gracia facility opened for business.
The new factory is far livelier than other nearby workplaces. Bachata music and workers' chatter are constant background noise. The factory has good ventilation, plenty of windows, and overhead lighting help workers avoid eye strain.
But the biggest difference, says Upia, are the chairs. In most Dominican sewing factories, workers sit on hard metal seats with no back support, leaning awkwardly to operate their sewing machines. "We would try to make cushions on the chairs from the scraps of leftover clothes," she recalls. "Your body would hurt all day." Soon after the Alta Gracia factory opened, the workers noticed some nice-looking office chairs being unloaded from a truck. "They must be for the managers," Upia thought. But they had been ordered for the workers, at a cost of about $50 apiece. "Now," says Upia, "I don't have the back pain anymore."
At Alta Gracia, workers have a union, which gives them a voice on the job. In the Free Trade Zones of the Dominican Republic and around the world, unions are often the only hope garment workers have of enforcing basic rights of labor, including water breaks, bathroom breaks, not being fired for being pregnant, and the ability to fight back against sexual harassment and discrimination.
While workers at Alta Gracia don't face these challenges, Sitralpro, Alta Gracia's independent union, serves as one more democratic check on management. During its formation, the vote took place in front of the factory with no opposition from management. In fact, the company and the union jointly sponsor employee workshops about workers' rights on company time, which are conducted by the Dominican Labor Foundation. The union and management have a joint health and safety committee, and the union conducts vaccination programs, free courses in financial management and the English language, and HIV prevention workshops. The union and management meet regularly to discuss production, employee morale, and potential improvements to the facility.
"Alta Gracia is the kind of workplace every worker dreams of," observes Maritza Vargas, a leader of Alta Gracia's union. She noted that both union and management at Alta Gracia are largely led by women – uncharacteristic in the Dominican Republic. "We're showing the world what is possible."
The survival of Alta Gracia will largely hinge on whether stateside consumers are aware of the brand and its message. On many campuses efforts to promote it are in full swing. At the University of Maryland, students have circulated fliers reading, "Your sweatshirt can be a force for change in the world."
Other campuses have held fashion shows of union-made clothing. USAS sponsored two Alta Gracia workers who toured 14 campuses from North Carolina to Boston. At Yale and the University of Houston, the visit inspired a student petition to get the university to purchase Alta Gracia T-shirts to distribute to incoming freshmen, at alumni reunions, and other special events.
Whether campus bookstores prominently display Alta Gracia apparel makes a big difference. Some managers are reluctant to promote the label because it competes with brands like Nike, which pay universities huge licensing fees for the right to use their names, logos, and mascots on the clothing they produce, mostly in Asian sweatshops.
But others, like Jim Wilkerson, who runs Duke University's 27 campus stores, have championed the Alta Gracia brand with great success. At Duke's flagship store, Alta Gracia merchandise is prominently displayed and stocked, and a large flat-screen TV plays a video of smiling workers. Such efforts have paid off: Since August 2010, Duke has sold more than $600,000 of Alta Gracia's clothing.
"A t-shirt is a t-shirt – except this one is made with dignified conditions for workers," says Maria Louzon, a University of Maryland student and national coordinator of United Students for Fair Trade.
"Unlike other apparel companies and certifications, Alta Gracia upholds a standard worthy of the term 'Fair Trade'," Louzon elaborated. "That's why USFT has taken Alta Gracia on as one of our national priorities."
So far, it's thriving. Large schools like the universities of Missouri, North Carolina, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as NYU and UCLA, carry sizable orders of Alta Gracia. With great fanfare, students at Notre Dame selected Alta Gracia as "The Shirt" that fans, alumni, and students wear to the first football game of the year and whose sales proceeds are donated to charity.
If such success builds, says Bozich, "then we can take the next steps, including expanding outside college bookstores and selling our brand to other retailers."
Alta Gracia contracts with Ethix Merch, a distributor of socially responsible merchandise, to sell custom-printed T-shirts to social justice groups, faith communities, workplaces, and others, so everyday consumers can join the effort outside the college arena.
"The only guarantee we have to keep the factory operating in our community, and as a model for the industry, is support from students and other consumers in the US," says Alta Gracia union leader Pablo Tolentino.
Can the Alta Gracia label compete with Nike's swoosh? Are consumers willing to look for the Alta Gracia union label?
If Alta Gracia can make profitable merchandise under humane conditions and sell it at competitive prices, it will challenge the widespread race-to-the-bottom economics of the apparel industry and prove that conscientious consumers can have an impact on humanizing the forces of global capitalism.
• Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His book, "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 2oth Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame," was published in July by Nation Books.
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This article originally appeared on 7x7.com and is reprinted with permission.
September 17, 2010. At a monthly gathering of 50 executives, I listened to a one-minute piece of advice from each about Shareable, the nonprofit online magazine I cofounded a year earlier. We believe that sharing our resources is more fulfilling than our outdated earn-and-spend MO and that sharing can address issues like poverty and global warming.
Due, in part, to the recession, a wave of sharing platforms have cropped up, making it possible to create an entire lifestyle based on sharing cars, housing, nannies — even money. In that meeting of the minds, one message broke through: If I want to lead a movement toward a new sharing economy, I need to show the world how I, myself, share in everyday life.
So began my year of living the shareable life, which I chronicled on shareable.net. Unsure at the outset whether my experiment would make a difference, I began in January of 2011, armed with the knowledge of several Bay Area-based services that help people share. I tried about 30 ways to share and saved a ton of money.
Here are the highlights:
Experiment No. 1: Sharing Cars
I donated my beloved 1986 Volvo surf wagon to charity back in 2009. For the most part, I rely on my bike and public transportation and use my wife’s car on weekends. But, when her car isn’t available, I rent cars the old-fashioned way — at Enterprise. Each time I rent, I’m forced to endure the robotic corporate ritual of being pitched insurance. I say no every time. Finally at my wit's end, I decided to rent my next car from a human.
Enter Getaround, an online peer-to-peer car-sharing service that helps you find a car in your neighborhood or rent out your own by the hour or day. I’ve been able to find cars at half off the price of major rental companies, and Getaround handles the details. Of course, sharing isn’t always easy; Getaround is only available in a few places (SF Bay Area and Portland), and the process can be inconvenient. Once you make your rental request, the car owners must accept before you get the keys. They might not check their email. And they can turn you down.
My first Getaround rental was from Sara, an eco-minded paralegal who lived near my house. After storing my bike in her garage and eating strawberries from her aquaponic garden, she handed over the keys to her Toyota Scion, known as DaffodilPickle on Getaround. As I got in the driver's seat, I thought of my nightmare scenario — wrecking the car of this sweet person who is trying to do something nice for the environment. Assured that the car was insured by Getaround, I drove away thinking, “Holy #@%*. I just rented a car from a stranger!”
The bottom line: Going car-free saves money. AAA estimates that driving a big car costs 92.6 cents per mile in all. At the national average of 10,000 miles a year, that’s more than $9,000. By sharing cars in 2011, I saved $4,000.
Experiment No. 2: Breaking Up with the Bank
After a long, tumultuous relationship with Wall Street, I broke it off permanently in 2011. The abuse was just too much. Our bank, Wells Fargo, had skimmed $1.8 billion in unnecessary overdraft charges from its clients, and my wife and I lost $10,000 in stocks thanks to mismanagement by our retirement fund manager.
So we cashed in everything we could. We sold stocks or bonds that seemed risky and decided to give LendingClub a try. Why not lend money to strangers? It may not sound like the safest bet, but the advantages of social lending are compelling.
Social lenders broker online deals between individual borrowers and lenders at better rates than what banks offer. For instance, instead of the sub-1-percent return I used to get from my savings account, I’m now earning 9 percent, LendingClub’s average. This is within spitting distance of long-term stock market returns (around 12 percent if you invest passively in an index), but with much less risk and volatility. LendingClub makes it safe to invest, sorting loans by risk, return, and term. The service encouraged me to make small $25 loans to many people. I found the loans I wanted in 30 minutes.
In one year, I’ve invested about 5 percent of our retirement savings in LendingClub. No defaults yet. One late payment. Investing this way is more work than a savings account or a mutual fund — I have to regularly reinvest — but it’s worth it. In 2011, my LendingClub income was $508 at a 9.2 percent annual return. That’s $148 more than I earned in the stock market in 2010. (I’m a horrible stock market investor.)
Experiment No. 3: Redefining the Rental
I needed a hotel for five nights in New York. After searching first on Hotels.com and finding a string of rooms all priced at more than $300 a night, I decided to check out Airbnb, the San Francisco-based peer-to-peer service where you can find private vacation rentals and short-term stays or host travelers in your own home. It was there that I booked a one-of-a-kind stay in a cabin inside a loft — you heard right — for $75 a night in Brooklyn.
When I arrived at my cabin-in-a-loft, my architect-host Terri served me a frosty beer and her delicious, homemade organic vegetable chili. Sitting at her kitchen table, Terri told me how she hoped the cabin would be a cozy little getaway inside her big open space. She also shared her tips for local restaurants and offered me a homemade brownie for dessert.
Terri’s warm welcome set the tone for my stay, and I went home feeling uplifted. I felt good about the world. And I saved more than $1,000.
Experiment No. 4: Coworking
In March of 2011, my nonprofit, Shareable, moved into Hub SoMa, a 20,000-square-foot open-plan office shared by companies including The Biomimicry Institute and Change.org. For folks who would otherwise work at home or in a coffee shop, the Hub is appealing because of its community-focused coworking space that brings a certain amount of serendipity to the office. On any given day, opportunity may meet you on the spiral staircase — that’s where I scored from Hub CEO Cory Smith a rubber stamp that says, “This once belonged to:” (perfect for a swap) — or at the host desk, where Roe Cummings gave me a great tip for a story on Shareable. I even landed a $6,000 grant for Shareable on a lead from a fellow member.
Here’s how it works: Pricing is structured much like a gym membership, letting you pay based on your level of use, from 25 hours a month to a full-time private suite. Next year, Shareable will pay just $4,700 for our three employees (who have memberships ranging from 25 to 50 hours a month). My membership is $119 — $56 less a month than my old desk in a depressing office.
Working out of Hub is flexible, low-cost, and has no administrative overhead. Plus Shareable doesn’t have to negotiate a lease or worry about utilities, cleaning, or security. It’s all included. Approximate savings: $2,000 a year.
Experiment No. 5: The Nanny
My biggest savings came when our son, Jake, was born. We’re two working parents, and the idea of leaving him, just a tiny child a few months old, alone with strangers repulsed us. And we couldn’t afford a private nanny, which would cost us around $35,000 a year. We decided to investigate nanny sharing.
The trick is to find the nanny first. Once we had her, other parents felt more comfortable because they could see what they were getting into. For two years now, we’ve shared our nanny, Vilma, with two other families. She’s great. She stays with Jake on weekdays at our house. Our friends, Tam and Stuart, drop off their daughter, Taryn, three days a week. Maryann and Mark drop off Kayla on the remaining days.
I think we’ve been lucky. The arrangement is more flexible than daycare, and we found a nanny Jake loves. She provides a high level of care and is perfectly reliable. Of course, if Vilma calls in sick, one of us has to call in sick. But we’re not responsible for the other family’s childcare in case of a last-minute cancellation. We all save money, and our nanny makes more than she would working for just one family. It’s a win-win-win. Savings in 2011: $10,800. Plus, we’ve made new friends for potluck dinners, and I get to spend time with Jake on days that I’m working from home. Priceless.
My year of living the shareable life taught me some surprising lessons. The toughest to swallow is that the modern world isn’t designed for sharing — yet. In most states, renting your car to a neighbor may put you at risk of losing your insurance should your neighbor wreck it. And, in New York, it’s actually illegal to rent your apartment for stays longer than 30 days. Change is difficult. I’m no Pollyanna.
But the architect Buckminster Fuller once said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Those 50 executives were right: The world needs role models in order to make change. I hadn’t thought my blog would make a difference, but I was wrong. My story was picked up by Fast Company, Sunset, and NBC Nightly News, reaching tens of millions of people with the message that sharing is both good for the soul and a savvy financial move. At the end of the day, I reaped the personal reward of sharing with my neighbors.
And I have an extra $17,000 in my pocket.
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In Wessel Bakker’s hometown of Gouda, the Netherlands (like the cheese), there are wooden utility poles like the ones downed by Hurricane Sandy. But in Gouda, the structures are more nostalgia than infrastructure.
“In my neighborhood — it’s a small, nice town — there are the last remaining wooden poles,” said Bakker, Regional Director of Electricity Transmission and Distribution for DNV KEMA, an energy consulting, testing, and certification company. “[The poles] have been marked as a landscape monument.”
These are not simply the last remaining utility poles in Gouda. They are just about “the only poles left in the country,” said Bakker. “Maybe there are two or three more locations.”
Nearly three weeks after Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, thousands of people still don’t have power. Many are living in shelters because their homes lack heat, hot water, and electricity, while thousands more have completely lost their homes. The storm took more than 100 lives.
But as utility workers repair an aging American grid — and as climate change promises to bring stronger storms more frequently — Latitude News wonders what the U.S. can learn from the Netherlands’ modern, disaster-resistant power grid.
I asked Wessel Bakker what would happen to power supplies if a storm like Sandy hit the Dutch coast, a storm that comes ashore with 30-foot waves and 80-mile-per-hour winds.
He paused for a long moment, then said: “In the worst case scenario, I think nothing will happen.”
The electrical grid in the Netherlands has some similarities to its American counterpart. Both are composed of a transmission grid — big, high-voltage lines, like the ones you might see while driving along a major highway — and a distribution grid — small, low-voltage lines which comprise the patchwork of cables running through cities and neighborhoods.
But here’s one major difference: The Netherlands’ distribution grid is largely underground. That’s one less thing cluttering up the country’s picturesque landscape, and one less hazard if the wind hits 80 m.p.h.
It is physically impossible for this kind of damage to happen to the Netherlands’ distribution grid. The wind may blow, but the power lines are safe underground.
But flooding was equally damaging to the electrical infrastructure during the superstorm. Bakker points to lower Manhattan, where many substations, transformers, and switchboards — the machinery that regulates the electricity in cables — are built at ground level.
“What happened in Manhattan is a peculiar situation,” Bakker said. “The flooding was 14 feet above normal level. That’s extremely high. That is the root cause behind the failure.”
Even if severe flooding hit the Netherlands, damage to underground cables would be minimal. However, it is possible that a flood could damage ground-level substations and other infrastructure in the Netherlands. But that is assuming the Netherlands actually experienced a major flood, a disaster for which the country has been preparing for more than half a century.
Much of the Netherlands would be underwater if not for the nation’s 10,000-plus miles of dikes, dams, and other structures. Major flooding was an accepted part of life in the Netherlands until 1953, when a deluge of cold seawater destroyed infrastructure and killed 1,800 people. After that tragic event, the Netherlands got serious about natural disasters, embarking on a 50-year, $14.7-billion flood-control project.
The Netherlands flood-resistant infrastructure is built to withstand a 10,000-year flood, a flood so large and powerful it could only happen once in 10,000 years. By way of contrast, the levees built in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina are designed to withstand a 100-year storm.
In addition to a grid infrastructure designed to withstand heavy winds and flooding, the layout of the Dutch grid also makes it far more reliable than the American grid.
Much of the U.S. grid is designed in star patterns, meaning power lines fan out in straight lines toward homes and communities. That means if a power line connecting a community to the bulk grid goes down, the power won’t come back on until that line is repaired.
But in the Netherlands, the grid is laid out in a circular formation. If you lose power from one direction, you can quickly receive it from the other direction. And, increasingly, the Dutch grid is interconnected with neighboring Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the UK. Inter-connectivity improves reliability.
All of these factors — a massive infrastructure designed to resist floods, an extensive network of underground power lines, and a highly interconnected grid — make the Dutch grid far more reliable than the American grid.
“In Holland,” said Bakker, “we have about average 24 minutes outage annually.”
Bakker points to a 2008 study of the American grid, which came to very different conclusions.
“Some of the most reliable utilities are in the heartland states of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas,” Bakker said. “In those states, the power is out an average of 92 minutes per year. On the other end of the spectrum, utilities in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey averaged 214 minutes of total interruptions each year. These figures don’t include power outages blamed on tornadoes or other disasters.”
I asked Bakker when was the last time the Netherlands experienced a big power outage. Again, he paused for a long moment: “It depends what you call ‘big.’ There was a large one in the western region about 15 years ago.”
More than 1 million people lost power — for about an hour.
In some ways, comparing the American and Dutch grids isn’t quite fair. The Netherlands is about the size of a densely populated Maryland, whereas the U.S. is enormous with a widely distributed power grid. The Netherlands’ unique topography has effectively required it to build major flood infrastructure, whereas building thousands of miles of dikes might be an expensive overreaction to Hurricane Sandy. Plus the American grid is overseen and maintained by a patchwork of federal, regional, and local bodies. Most power generation companies in the Netherlands are privately owned, just like American utility operators.
Having said that, it’s also the case that the country is much smaller than the U.S., making management, oversight, and distribution of power far more streamlined.
But here are some sobering statistics. A recent report to Congress (entitled “Weather-Related Power Outages and Electric System Resiliency”) estimated that each year storms cost the U.S. $20 billion to $55 billion in damages and lost economic productivity. However, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimated that Hurricane Sandy, one single storm, caused $50 billion in damage, most of it in New York state. That means in 2012, the US hit its annual quota in one day. The report, written two months before Sandy hit the coast, also noted that “the trend of outages from weather-related events is increasing.”
Wessel Bakker doesn’t envy the American situation.
“You have large challenges ahead of you,” said Bakker. He says the U.S. must “identify the optimum road map to improve the reliability for [the American] grid.”
But can the U.S. really do what the Netherlands has done — pump billions, if not trillions, into smart-grid technologies and disaster-resistant infrastructure?
The U.S. might not have a choice, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). In a 2011 report called “Failure to Act: The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Electricity Infrastructure,” ASCE called the American grid a “patchwork system” that could break down without a $673 billion investment by 2020. At current rates of investment, the ASCE report says, the economy will grow more slowly and be more susceptible to fits and starts induced by nasty weather.
The report to Congress makes a few seemingly “Dutch” suggestions: trimming trees, laying distribution and some transmission lines underground, investing in a modern Smart Grid, and focusing utility maintenance practices on power-system reliability. Essentially, doing what the Netherlands has done, but on a much larger scale.
But Bakker points to a cultural shift that may be necessary as well. He says the Dutch public and government have simply developed a lower tolerance for power outages.
After three weeks without power, some Americans are certainly feeling less tolerant too.
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When it comes to investing in a clean cookstoves project, Triple Pundit reports that maybe there's no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.
Cooked up in 2010, CleanStar Mozambique is a combined effort among a mix of investors, financial and research institutions, and NGOs, including CleanStar Ventures, Novozymes, ICM, Zoe Enterprises, Dometic, Impact Carbon, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. The project:
"Simultaneously addresses the issues of deforestation, land degradation, hunger, poverty, indoor pollution and carbon emissions, on a small scale, all through a for-profit business structure. The program ... is centered around the replacement of traditional charcoal cooking stoves with alcohol-fired stoves that can be fueled by sustainably produced bio-ethanol."
Triple Pundit reports that the Soros Economic Development Fund and Industrialization Fund for Developing Countries funding "will allow CleanStar and its partners to now focus fully on implementation, rather than the time-consuming process of fundraising.”
The Wall Street Journal reports that Soros’ $6 million investment:
"Will give it a 19% stake in the $20 million project... The project has also received a $3 million investment from the Denmark-backed Industrialization Fund for Developing Countries, while Danish industrial enzymes company Novozymes has provided $1 million and a number of loans. Bank of America Merrill Lynch is also assisting with the selling of carbon credits."
CleanStar seems to be making a huge impact on Mozambique in a number of challenging arenas, but implications for other cities in Africa are exciting if the project is implemented successfully:
"They expect that their retail fuel distribution infrastructure will reach 80,000 customers in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, by 2014. This looks to be the next chapter in a great story. With a $10 billion market for charcoal-based cooking across the rapidly-urbanizing continent, CleanStar’s business model is likely to be feasible in over 40 major African cities."
#GivingTuesday may well become a new holiday tradition, as donors generously responded to charities’ pleas to take time off from shopping days like Cyber Monday and Black Friday to give and volunteer.
Network for Good, another processor of online gifts, also reported a spike. The total number of donations more than doubled, to 113 percent, on #GivingTuesday versus the Tuesday after Thanksgiving 2011. The amount collected Tuesday was also 55 percent more than the amount of donations collected on Monday.
Of course, with the holiday season just starting, it’s hard to know yet whether people accelerated the giving they typically wait to do until the end of December or whether the money will be an overall lift for nonprofits.
Still, charities both big and small, reported modest-to-big increases in donations on #GivingTuesday. Here’s how the day unfolded for some of those groups:
Project Hope, an international health charity, collected $6,720 on Tuesday, a more-than-eightfold increase from the $784 it collected on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving last year. It raised $2,950 from online donors and $70 from mobile-phone giving. But the most successful effort was a drive to encourage its workers to give: More than 100 employees did, raising $3,700.
Charity: Water, which builds clean-water systems for people in impoverished countries, increased donations 14 percent on Tuesday, raising $40,000 in total versus last year. The number of small donations grew from 361 last year to 505 this year, sparked largely by promotions the nonprofit made on social networks. It’s awaiting more donations from corporate supporters like Bonobos, Match.com, and Other World Computing, which sold services or goods to encourage their customers to give to the charity.
The Fishing School, a youth-development charity in Washington, raised $3,305 from 17 donors during #GivingTuesday. Last year, it didn’t receive any donations on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. In promoting this year’s event, the group appealed to its loyal donors and new ones via Facebook and Twitter.
The same strategy worked for Manna Food Center, a food bank in Gaithersburg, Md. It increased its one-day fundraising total threefold, from $620 last year to $1,875 this year. About 200 people saw the charity’s Facebook posts about #GivingTuesday; its tweets were redistributed a few times too, says Allison Krumsiek Anderson, a development manager.
Imagine this assignment, says Bill McDonough in a recent TED talk: Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, converts nitrogen into ammonia, distills water, stores solar energy as fuel, builds complex sugars, creates microclimates, changes color with the seasons, and self-replicates.
Sound impossible? Well, nature’s already completed this one. It’s called a plant. And the fact that it does these things safely and efficiently is inspiring engineers and designers to reconceive the ways we manufacture such basics as soap bottles, raincoats, and wall-to-wall carpeting.
Biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle, the two fields of inquiry that frame this emerging discipline, stem from the work of biologist Janine Benyus, architect William McDonough, and chemist Michael Braungart, who realized that the very models they considered key to making safer, more environmentally friendly products were sitting right before us, in the natural world.
The trio wrote two pivotal books—Benyus’ "Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature" and McDonough and Braungart’s "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things"—which laid out their beliefs and touched a nerve.
"What would nature do to design lasting and regenerative materials?” asks Benyus. “How does a river filter fresh water and a spider manufacture resilient fiber?”
Braungart, picking up on the theme, wonders: “Why aren’t we designing buildings like trees and cities like forests?”
Their questions reminded readers that life is a vast web of networks, that working with, rather than dominating, nature might unleash greater possibilities. Indeed, Benyus, McDonough, and Braungart invited us to reconceive basic principles of manufacturing in ways that seemed at once radical and rudimentary.
The public embraced these concepts, and today, a decade after publication, "Cradle to Cradle" still sells 20,000 copies annually. But when early adopters actually tried to put these principles into practice and design new products accordingly, they quickly confronted the depth and complexity of the problem: manufacturing processes shrouded in secrecy, rooted in unsustainable sourcing, and driven only by the bottom line.
Their answer: establish quality standards for those manufacturers who did want to make safe, healthy products. In the last two years, propelled by a rapid shift in public consciousness and a growing network of practitioners, both movements have made significant strides toward their goals.
In 2010, McDonough and Braungart founded the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a nonprofit that evaluates and certifies products as safe and sustainable. In 2011, Benyus and her team launched Biomimicry 3.8, a consortium of scientists and businesspeople dedicated to collecting research and training designers and engineers around the world as certified biomimicry specialists.
Viewing nature as a source of ideas—rather than merely a source of goods—has a lengthy history among indigenous people. But Western industrial culture had mostly relegated such inquiry to the realm of obscure academic research. After Benyus’s book came out in 1997, however, corporations began to call, looking for ways they might practice what she called “the conscious emulation of life’s genius.”
“‘We’re trying to create a more sustainable product line,’ they’d say. ‘We want to save energy and reduce the toxins and materials we use. Could you come over and tell us what nature does?’”
As Benyus and her long-time partner Dayna Baumeister began consulting with designers and engineers, they found that single organisms—as well as entire natural systems—could be an inspiration. For instance, while it’s possible to mimic an owl’s feather by creating a fabric that opens anywhere along its surface, Benyus and Baumeister realized it might be even better to emulate the process by which owl feathers self-assemble at body temperature without using toxins or high pressure. The implications for human use—in everything from textiles to quieter airplanes—were staggering.
“We sat together and asked, ‘Is there a best practice of how to be an Earthling?’” Benyus recalls, “A carbon-based life-form on this planet, that enhances rather than degrades?”
Their deepening observations led to a set of biomimetic guidelines aimed at isolating what works and replicating it. They dubbed these “Life’s Principles,” and all of them stem from the concept of cooperation as a driving force in evolution.
“It really changes the way you design things,” says Benyus. “For instance, if we design a water-treatment facility, we start with Life’s Principles. First, it can’t be a chemical treatment—chlorine is out. Second, it should be decentralized. So, suddenly, as you’re looking at that, you begin to say, well, maybe there should be neighborhood-level water treatment, and maybe the water treatment should be constructed wetlands. Since life is always multifunctional, you think that perhaps there should also be an education or recreational facility, or maybe a park. So when you use Life’s Principles as a scoping tool, you’re looking to the natural world and asking, how do organisms filter, how do they recover fresh water? That’s when you’re emulating, doing biomimicry.”
As their own understanding of biomimicry expanded, so did the movement. In 2006, after educators and professionals around the world had clamored for workshops and certification courses, Benyus and Baumeister founded the nonprofit Biomimicry Institute. There, they trained a new generation of biomimicry profes sionals, progressing from three-hour online sessions to a rigorous two-year course they hope to have certified for a master’s degree. “After about a year people would call us and say, ‘Actually, what we need is a community, a place to share information, to be connected to all the other biomimicry nodes around the world,’” Benyus laughs. “So we said, okay, time to change again, time to evolve.”
Biomimicry 3.8 was the result. With 30 staffers and 31 regional networks, it aims to be the LexisNexis of biomimcry, a repository for all the research from the last 14 years. “You don’t get gigantic; you get networked,” says Benyus. “That’s what happened to us.”
From End to Beginning
A similar impulse to reimagine conventions in design led William McDonough and Michael Braungart to lay out their own sustainability principles: create safe objects of long-term value, eliminate waste, and recognize the interdependence of humans and nature as well as the right of each to co-exist.
McDonough and Braungart first presented the ideas in 1992 in "The Hannover Principles." Ten years later, they published "Cradle to Cradle," a manifesto calling for the wholesale transformation of human industry by shifting toward ecologically intelligent design. In direct contrast to our conventional cradle-to-grave mentality, which assigns no value to a product beyond its first use, Cradle to Cradle envisioned materials flowing through cycles that would maintain or even increase their value over time.
This went far beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle.” McDonough and Braungart wrote about the regenerative powers that exist in nature, positing that humans could have a restorative impact on the environment. Consider, for example, death: Since we emit carbon even when our lives are over, Braungart suggests we focus on making our ecological footprint beneficial, rather than merely trying to shrink it. At heart, this approach underscores the limits of standard environmental thinking aimed at making products “less bad.” Too reductive, says Braungart, who scoffs: “Think about falling in love efficiently.”
As the concept of Cradle to Cradle spread, McDonough and Braungart began developing certification protocols, and calls grew for a universal certification process. California’s Green Chemistry Initiative, signed in 2008 by then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, provided the impetus to take their work to the next level: In 2010, the team, with support from Schwarzenegger, launched the independent Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, making their certification system and methodology more widely available.
Similar to Biomimicry 3.8, the newly launched Cradle 3.0 challenges companies not only to redesign their products, but to incorporate social justice and renewable energy in the manufacturing process. McDonough acknowledges some of the immense barriers, particularly around secrecy agreements and proprietary information, allowing that it’s taken years to build trust.
But Bridgett Luther, former head of the California Department of Conservation, who now directs the Institute, is optimistic.
“You start incrementally redesigning, reducing carbon footprint, slowly moving to more renewables as they become more affordable.” she says. “What I love about Cradle to Cradle Certified is that we work with companies as a team, and over time you get better."
Just in time for Greenbuild 2012, San Francisco’s November expo on sustainable building, the Institute rolled out a training module for a new generation of scientists, guiding companies toward basic, silver, gold, or platinum certification of their products.
But for Luther, certification is merely a vehicle for more profound societal transformation.
“The whole design exercise is very empowering, because when companies go through this process they get really excited, and their products get amazing,” she says. “Cradle to Cradle people are happy, because they can see that the product they’re making is going to make the world a better place, and it leaks down into the whole company. Yes, we’re going to have to make do with less stuff because we’re not going to have enough minerals to go around, but we can invent stuff that’s so powerful that every time you use it there’s a bonus. I think there’s some real power in the vision.”
Having grown out of different strands of scientific inquiry, Cradle 3.0 and Biomimicry 3.8 share a fundamental commitment to the process of reconnecting with the natural world. But rather than providing a rigid set of prescriptions, Benyus and Luther view their disciplines as living, breathing organisms that are constantly breaking new ground, like nature itself.
“Biomimicry isn’t an answer; it’s a way to find answers,” says Benyus.
The goals are as much about detergentmakers altering the chemistry of their soap to use smaller bottles as they are about discovering new processes.
“A lot of products we need haven’t been invented yet,” Luther says. “You think about our lives, and they’re made of a bunch of molecules. Whether it’s going into a toy or a piece of toilet paper or the one that’s the new jet fuel, what we want to do is inspire a whole new generation of chemists to get the good molecules working for us. We want kids to say, ‘I can be the person who creates the molecule that makes the world better.’ ”
For Benyus, the next frontier is 3D printing, a mechanized version of nature’s more graceful, “as needed” style of manufacturing. She envisions a world where, instead of shipping countless goods thousands of miles, we would have a Kinko’s for pots and pans and cups – using natural polymers or even beetle shells.
“Our dream would be to have five vials of goop, then add structure to it to make it super strong or whatever you need it to be. At the end of its life you could put your product in a bath of enzymes to disassemble it, and then you'd be able to use it again,” she says. “Fewer materials, better recyclability. To me, this is really exciting.”
3D printing may also be where biomimicry and Cradle to Cradle finally intersect.
“What we’re trying to do with our polymer idea is what I think Cradle to Cradle is trying to accomplish as well,” says Benyus. “Where green chemistry, biomimicry, and Cradle to Cradle meet, we start to talk about rewriting the story of stuff.”
In McDonough’s view, both Cradle to Cradle and biomimicry take their cues from the natural world. But a shared philosophy may be their most important link.
“The question comes down to not just ‘What is our technique?’ but ‘What am I doing?’ ” the architect says. “Notwithstanding engineering wizardry, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ must always be the first and ultimate question.”
Currently, he is working to design offices, factories, and schools that are photosynthetic and make energy—buildings with admittedly “magical” characteristics.
But thanks to Benyus, Braungart, and McDonough, such ideas are no longer in the realm of science fiction. From oil-repellent coating inspired by water bugs, to using prairies as a model to grow food sustainably, to observing how chimps cope with illness, the possibilities of learning from our planet’s unexplored reservoirs of intelligence are vast.
“What if there was a boat designed to clean the water? Or how about a phone that enhances your hearing?” asks Luther. “That’s the Cradle to Cradle way. You just change your thinking.”
• Sven Eberlein wrote this article for What Would Nature Do?, the Winter 2013 issue of YES! Magazine. Sven is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who attracts themes with a hopeful, earthy drift. When he’s not roaming his neighborhood in search of street food and random acts of creativity, he can be found musing on his blog, svenworld.com.
President Obama will face a number of challenges over his next four-year term and will likely make changes that will affect the nonprofit world. With that in mind, The Chronicle invited a group of nonprofit leaders and thinkers to share their ideas about what his nonprofit agenda should be.
A sampling of their responses is below:
• Recognize that the nonprofit sector is a critical partner with government and business in fulfilling the country’s needs.
The U.S. is first among nations in the unique arrangement by which nonprofits, led by private citizens, perform functions that in other countries fall to the public sector.
Recognition means including nonprofits in planning discussions and creating an environment in which they can do the public’s good. This is one of the most hyper-organized societies on the planet. We have subsectors around the arts, education, human services, the environment, and other major aspects of human endeavor, and we have associations and coalitions for each. As a chamber of commerce is a means to find out what business “thinks,” these associations are willing partners in shaping and executing what works best to achieve national goals. And we need to identify those goals. An outcome most Americans would probably endorse, for example, is that all children become ready for post-secondary education, work, and life. From such a goal, we can identify the right tools and programs to get us there.
—Irv Katz, president, National Human Services Assembly
• Increase support for global relief work and reject suggestions to cut international aid.
Cutting aid will only set back the already arduous task that many relief organizations face and impedes our ability to tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges, like food and water insecurity. Second, consider ways to make U.S.-based nonprofit organizations more competitive in international work. The administration should review and update policies and procedures to meet current and future needs.
These two points should be priorities if we hope to equip and empower American nonprofits to represent the United States internationally with good, quality work and to be worldwide leaders in humanitarian aid.
—Abed Ayoub, chief executive, Islamic Relief USA
• Focus on the safety net at home and abroad.
The U.S. Census estimates that nearly 150 million Americans—half the population—are living in households considered “poor” or “low income.” Given the pressure on the federal budget, America’s soup kitchens, churches, and other effective nonprofits are an essential safety net. Rather than limit the deductibility of charitable giving, the administration should create a friendly environment for the nonprofits.
Internationally, hundreds of millions of people experience deadly poverty: 19,000 children die every day of preventable causes like diarrhea; 870 million people do not have enough to eat. Unfortunately, some effective humanitarian programs have been targeted for disproportionate cuts.
International aid is not only deeply American, it fosters nonmilitary diplomacy, encourages foreign allies, develops markets for American trade, and saves millions of lives every year. The administration should safeguard lifesaving humanitarian aid and unleash private donors at a time when the charitable sector is even more necessary.
—Richard Stearns, president, World Vision U.S.
• Give priority to improving methods for delivering vital services to those most vulnerable among us.
While there is a very robust discussion about how much money should be spent on various federal programs that serve the poor, few are engaged in conversation about how better to administer those services, how to maximize efficiency in delivery, and how to identify new solutions to prevent and alleviate poverty at large. We are hopeful that moving forward, the president will lead a national conversation about identifying new methods and strategies for lifting more Americans onto a path of opportunity and self-sufficiency in a way that is economically sustainable for the nation.
—The Rev. Larry Snyder, president, Catholic Charities USA
• Provide leadership to advance legislative and administrative measures that respect the integrity and hard work of immigrants and their families.
These measures must include access to permanent legal status, providing a pathway to U.S. citizenship.
Make U.S. citizenship accessible for eligible immigrants and refugees, keeping naturalization fees affordable and processing applications quickly. Ensure adequate resources to help applicants prepare for the citizenship exam and meet the English-language requirement, and work to ensure that federal programs for immigrants and refugees are linguistically accessible and culturally appropriate. The next president should bolster government and nonprofit efforts to protect the civil and constitutional rights of people throughout the United States, including immigrants and refugees, and to confront discrimination, racially motivated crimes, and other tactics used to suppress civic engagement and participation.
Immigration is one of our most distinguishing characteristics as a nation; it helps to drive economic growth and defines our identity. By focusing on the above priorities and issues, the next president has the ability to open the doors of opportunity for countless immigrant and native-born families—now and for future generations.
—Walter Barrientos, special-projects manager at Grantmakers Concerned With Immigrants and Refugees
The day after Thanksgiving has become synonymous with people camping out, fighting, and occasionally trampling each other in pursuit of a bargain. This year, a group of nonprofit and socially conscious organizations hopes to harness that energy for the greater good.
Their national campaign — to brand the Tuesday after the holiday as an annual day of giving — is a product of the digital age, so steeped in social media that its name is a Twitter hashtag: (hashtag)GivingTuesday.
The movement's founding partners include traditional organizations such as the United Way and American Red Cross as well as Microsoft, the online bargain site Groupon, and Mashable, the technology and social media news blog.
Each of the campaign's hundreds of official participants has been encouraged to adapt the #GivingTuesday concept to its needs.
"I'm trying to use #GivingTuesday as a reason for people to help others," Dave Girgenti, founder and executive director of the Voorhees, N.J.-based Wish Upon a Hero Foundation, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"I want the true holiday spirit to come out, not the 'help a charity out for the holidays' spirit. That comes out anyway," he said.
Wish Upon a Hero's website is a platform for people to post "wishes," requests that range from school supplies to free Lasik surgery. Donors determine how to make the dreams come true.
From 80 to 100 wishes a day are granted by people who offer money or their services, Girgenti said. The foundation typically funds five; on Tuesday it will try to increase that number to 25.
For many organizations in the region, #GivingTuesday will be a day for increased fundraising, marking the start of the final lap in the race to solicit year-end charitable donations.
"The noise is so loud around retail, retail, retail. How is it possible for us to break through that noise?" said Aaron Sherinian, vice president for communications and public relations at the United Nations Foundation, which funds projects aligned with United Nations goals. The group, based in Washington, helped organize #GivingTuesday.
"If the (campaign's) founding partners have done anything, it's to offer an opening day for people to talk more loudly about what they're doing," Sherinian said.
The Camden County (N.J.) Animal Shelter, Covenant House New Jersey, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Burlington, Camden & Gloucester (N.J.) Counties — all #GivingTuesday partners — plan to send a blast of tweets, emails, and Facebook posts to prospective donors in an attempt to kick-start holiday giving.
In Philadelphia, the Mann Center for the Performing Arts will conduct a one-day drive to raise $10,000 for transportation associated with its summer children's programs. It aims to have 200 donors sponsor school bus seats at $50 each, said Nancy R. Newman, the Mann's executive vice president.
"We're like everybody; the end of the year is important for us," Newman said. "Thanksgiving is the beginning of the time you think about gifts."
Mayor Michael Nutter is expected to officially declare the day "Giving Tuesday" in Philadelphia, Sherinian said.
In its inaugural year, #GivingTuesday is competing for attention with Superstorm Sandy relief efforts, but the efforts should easily coexist, said Girgenti, of the Wish Upon a Hero Foundation.
"I think for people, there's a difference. One was for emergency giving, emergency relief," he said. "I think that people who give for holiday reasons or pay off 'layaway wishes,' that's for a different kind of emotional connection."
Whether they volunteer their time Tuesday or donate to storm relief or cultural organizations, Sherinian said, he thinks people will embrace the day and make it a tradition.
"#GivingTuesday has said, 'Let's raise the volume around the creativity and the generosity of Americans,'" he said. "We just came off an election season that was fairly divisive, but we think giving is something Americans agree on."
The idea stemmed from a back-and-forth conversation between Mayor Booker and a woman who goes by the name TwitWit and uses the handle (at)MWadeNC. They began talking about the idea while discussing the role the government should play in funding school breakfast and lunch programs.
Booker said last week he intends to follow through with the plan. TwitWit said it is "great idea" but wants more information on how it will be carried out.
During their Twitter exchange, TwitWit wrote, "nutrition is not the responsibility of the government."
The conversation soon changed to food stamps.
"why is there a family today that is "too poor to afford breakfast"? are they not already receiving food stamps?" TwitWit wrote.
"Lets you and I try to live on food stamps in New Jersey (high cost of living) and feed a family for a week or month. U game?" Booker responded.
"sure, Mayor, I'm game," TwitWit wrote back.
"Great. Lets do this. I hope you live in New Jersey. Lets film it and see how we do," Booker responded. He later wrote, "We will have to get a referee. DM me your number so we can see if we can work out details."
Booker, a prolific Twitter user who has 1.2 million followers, said Nov. 20 that he is committed to living on the equivalent of food stamps, but could not say how he will approximate the benefits, execute the idea, or how long it will last.
The average monthly food stamp benefit was $133.26 per person in New Jersey in fiscal year 2011, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
"We're going to set up the rules," Booker told reporters. "And that's what we're researching right now. This will not be a gimmick or a stunt."
Booker said he wants the challenge to be a chance "for us to grow in compassion and understanding" and dispel stereotypes.
In an interview with The Associated Press TwitWit said she is a 39-year-old married mother of two from North Carolina. She spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because she said she has received threats since her Twitter discussion about food stamps.
She said she is willing to participate in the challenge but wants to know the ground rules before committing. She has not heard from Booker's office and is upset she has not been included in the research process.
"To hear he's planning and setting things up, it makes me feel like I'm a little bit of a prop in the game," she said.
She thinks she and Booker should approximate living on food stamps for a month.
TwitWit said she does not oppose food stamps. But if more taxpayer money is allocated for food stamps, she says, more people will require them.
"There is going to be a lot more of us needing those food stamps if it doesn't stop," she said.
She thinks many people are mischaracterizing her conversation with Booker, which initially centered on funding school meals.
"I don't have a vendetta," she said, and urged people to work together. "I'm looking at things from a different angle."
It may be dismissed by Kenya’s middle classes and elites as primitive, but farmer Leah Wambu, is convinced that bartering promises a new way of protecting rural food supplies as climate change takes hold.
Swapping one type of goods for another instead of for cash is an age-old practice. For a growing number of people like 69-year-old Wambui, from Nyeri, it is gaining new appeal as a way to combat increasing food scarcity in rural areas such as hers in central Kenya.
“If I need a chicken, I take a basketful of maize to the market and look for someone interested in my goods,” says the cheerful grandmother. “If we agree the goods meet each others’ worth, then I will trade my grain for the chicken.”
At the nearby Gakindu shopping center where Wambui stations herself, the market is abuzz with activity as traders cart in bags of farm produce, with flocks of goats and sheep, and herds of cattle and pigs in tow.
The chatter and haggling continues until around midday, when rural folk like Wambui head back home to see their fetch is enough to feed their families.
This is not how she has always operated. “I used to sell my grain to middlemen who would come to the village during the harvesting season,” recalls Wambui. “They would buy it at a throwaway price.”
Once her store of grain was empty, she would spend her meager earnings on food for her family, but it would not last to the next harvest. And harvests have become unreliable in recent years as rains fail or crops are destroyed in extreme downpours, worsening the cycle of want and hunger.
This changed for Wambui when she rediscovered bartering at a community meeting called by the village chief to discuss the drought of 2011, Kenya’s worst on record.
“I was relying on relief food but the supplies would take a month to arrive,” she recalls. “Sometimes corrupt officials would sell off a part of the supplies.”
Even so, villagers took some convincing that they would be better off bartering their farm produce than selling it to merchants who would trade it for a large profit in bigger markets.
“At first the people resisted the idea,” explains Mureithi Githinji, chairman of the village market.
But when a few, including Githinji, decided to try swapping commodities, they found they could make their food last to the next season. Soon more people joined the scheme, and the barter trade gained leverage.
Rising demand for food from growing urban populations and changing weather patterns have put increasing pressure on farmers, says Angela Kimani, subregional emergency officer for Eastern and Central Africa in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Many see little benefit from rising food prices in cities, with most of the profits of their production instead going to middlemen traders, who also profit when selling grain back to farmers during times of drought and crop failures.
A report by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) indicates that more than 10 million Kenyans suffer from food insecurity, with the majority of them relying on food relief.
Rural and urban households are also incurring huge food bills due to high prices, says the report, while staple food is in short supply.
KARI links food insecurity to frequent droughts, high input costs for domestic food production, and land tenure insecurity, which is displacing farmers in areas with the greatest potential for growing crops.
“The high global food prices and low purchasing power by a large proportion of the population, due to high levels of poverty, means there is need to have infrastructure that protects the rural food chain,” says Ephraim Mukisira, KARI’s director, referring to bartering networks.
Some experts see bartering as a way to enhance food security while ensuring that traditional staple foods remain within the rural food chain.
“There is nothing wrong with barter trade because people trade for commodities they desire,” agrees Ronald Sibanda, the World Food Programme’s representative and country director. “It is important to encourage consumption of traditional foods because they are nutritious.”
But the FAO’s Ms. Kimani calls for wider consumer education as well.
“There is a need to establish a balance between barter trade and the rural cash economy,” she says.
John Kabiro, a trader in Nairobi’s Gikomba market, one of the busiest in the city, argues that bartering does not help social development because it undermines cash-flow systems.
According to Mr. Kabiro, bartering would work better if the government subsidized rural Kenya with social services such as education and health, since these tend to drain households’ income stream.
“Barter trade is the last thing on my mind since it does not give me money,” Kabiro says. “I do not see it working since everyone is after wealth creation.”
In October, Africa observed Food and Nutrition Security Day. As governments ponder steps to reduce food insecurity, it remains to be seen whether Kabiro’s approach or Wambui’s will prove most helpful in ensuring enough affordable food is available.
• Kagondu Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.